In the third of a seventeenth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario. A few years back I was flicking through the pages of a locally published periodical and noticed that when it came to Sommeliers it was the same names that seemed to pop up over and over again. I was also becoming gradually cognisant of the fact that we more established wine folks were well and truly “losing our edge” to these young blood Sommeliers. Being well aware of the depth of new talent that was out there I finally decided to get together with a couple of fellow Toronto Sommelier “Old Guard” (Anton Potvin and Peter Boyd) to assemble a line of questioning that would give us an entertaining insight into the minds of these rising stars.
This edition sees us sitting down for a lengthy interview with The Living Vine‘s Danielle Nicholls, who gave us a series of though provoking answers…
Good Food Revolution: So Danielle, what is it that you are doing these days?
Danielle Nicholls: As always, I’m juggling a few different things. I’ve been full-time with The Living Vine as a sales rep & marketing coordinator since February. I’ve also been moonlighting once a week at Wynona (a great new wine bar/restaurant in the east end).
In addition, I launched a small side project this year called 86 Common Collective to highlight inspiring women in wine & hospitality.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training wine-wise did you have before doing what you do today?
DN: I started learning about wine through working in restaurants. When I was 22 I dove a little deeper through the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and after completing my Level 3 in Toronto, I decided to move to Mission Hill Winery in Kelowna to work as a Sommelier. Spending time in the vineyards, with the winemaker and in the cellar was invaluable.
Afterwards, I moved to Calgary to work as a Territory Manager for Mark Anthony Group and to finish my WSET Diploma. When I moved back to Toronto, I worked a few Somm jobs (at the Platinum Club in the ACC, Blueblood Steakhouse) and took on the Beverage Manager role at Montgomery’s Restaurant.
GFR: How would you describe your role with the lovely Mark Cuff at The Living Vine?
DN: To give a bit of context, after my time at Mission Hill, I worked briefly in Calgary selling really bad wine (i.e. “Wine-o-clock Shiraz” and “Screw it! Pinot Grigio). It was extremely disheartening and I vowed to never work for an agency again… until I met Mark.
Mark has given me the opportunity to work with incredible restauranteurs and sell them wine that I stand behind. In addition, I spend about 20-25hrs per week working on events, website content, e-mail marketing etc.
GFR: And how is Mark Cuff as a boss?
I know he is always Mr. Nice Guy in public, but let’s hear what he’s really like?
DN: haha. Mark is Mr. Nice Guy – it’s that east coast upbringing! But, he’s much more than that. Like most entrepreneurs I’ve met: he’s always thinking of the next thing. It can be daunting, there are so many avenues to attend and ideas to entertain, but it’s also exciting and that’s what keeps everyone engaged.
Mark has this persona of being a joker and entertainer—he loves to keep things fun—but, he’s also human and gets stressed like the rest of us.
What I admire most about Mark, is that he cares deeply about the team. If the office is burning down, he’ll still make time to ask you how your weekend was.
GFR: And what did you learn from your many roles on the other side of the fence that you can apply to your current position? Are there many transferable skills there?
DN: As a sommelier? I think it’s essential to work on the other side before working in sales. I never thought I would be good at “sales,” I don’t like to pushing or pestering people; I like to make people happy. Most people aren’t happy to see a stranger walk through the door with a price list in hand. You have to understand when people will be open an introduction (never go during peak business hours); to be able to look at a wine list and see the “holes;” and, you have to know the whole picture: price point, varietals, what works by the glass, what’s popular with consumers and what sommeliers have a weakness for. I couldn’t have known these things if I hadn’t been a buyer and worked on the floor first.
GFR: I’m often speaking to working Sommeliers who are considering moving into the world of wine sales. What advice would you give them?
DN: It’s not as glamorous as it seems. Haha.
I spend a lot of time running around, making last minute deliveries, hauling cases, dealing with angry clients, etc. It also takes a lot of time and dedication. Most agencies pay on commission and it takes a while to build up enough clients in order to make it a full-time gig.
I would definitely recommend talking to some wine agents and gathering as much information as possible before making the leap.
GFR: Do you ever miss working on the floor as a Sommelier? To be honest with you, and for the record, I don’t. At all.
The deadly combination of my bad back and a growing intolerance towards ignorant customers would make me a hell of a liability for any restaurateur. Anyway… enough about me!
DN: To be honest, I don’t miss working as a “Sommelier.” I found that when I was working solely as a Sommelier, I was bored. Most of the restaurants in Toronto with a dedicated Sommelier are traditional steakhouses. I find that the food choices mimic the wine choices… “let me guess, you’ll have the dry-aged steak and a bottle of Caymus?” Those people don’t want help, they want someone to boost their egos and justify their generic choices.
What’s your whole take on the whole tip argument? I’ve never been part of the tip pool as I have always been in management, or in a private club with no tips. In my mind the tip system in north america is completely broken… and then we have the minimum wage aspect! A veritable knot of vipers. A huge subject, I know, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts.
DN: It’s definitely broken, but I’m conflicted because I’ve been a beneficiary of it. I think that tip-pooling has helped toward balancing a bit of inequality between front and back of house (as long as back of house is getting a sufficient cut and making more hourly).
The best system I’ve been a part of was a tip-pool system where the entire management team made the same base salary and shared tips equally. This meant that the two managers served the 40-seat dining room often alone or with the help of one support and one host; and the two chefs helped service the dining room when we got busy. We all made a good living but it was backbreaking work—everyone had to pull their weight. However, this system wouldn’t work in bigger restaurants.
Beyond tip pool, we have the “tip included” model and higher wages, but it’s failed in North America. I don’t think tipping is going away, not in our culture anyway. And, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits all solution… I definitely don’t know the answer.
GFR: Now, how do I word this? Have you drunk the “Natural Wine Kool Aid”? I’m just kidding, kind of… I’m sick fed up of “natural wine” zealots with nothing but derision for those who feel otherwise. Saying that, I do feel that there are some astounding “Natural” wines out there, so don’t get me wrong. How do you feel about the scene? … perhaps I just have a very low tolerance for volatile acidity, I don’t know… but there is some right old crap out there.
Mark Cuff loves this question…
DN: Haha… this is becoming my favourite question too.
There is this identity crisis and so many misconceptions about “natural wine.” I’ve actually encountered more natural wine haters than zealots. It doesn’t have to be volatile or smell acrid and be murky to be “natural.” Unfortunately, a lot of producers are bandwagoning on the term and calling their wines “natural” to excuse faults and bad winemaking. But, when producers are farming biodynamically and as a result have healthy grapes that don’t require intervention to produce wines that taste more alive and full of flavour, I’m all for it!
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
DN: I love Canadian wines – they can be stunning but (why are there so many “buts” when I think about this subject) they are expensive (partly because we pay our workers living wages—and, rightfully so), it’s hard to find wines from other provinces, and we’re still growing grapes that we shouldn’t be (Cabernet Sauvignon, even with global warming, does not belong in Ontario). However, we’re an extremely young wine nation and still figuring it out… we’ll get there eventually!
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario?
DN: Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, with Ontario Chardonnay taking the top spot for me right now.
GFR: Apart from Cabernet Sauvignon, what do you feel we should really give up on?
DN: Anything that has to be chaptalized in order to taste good.
GFR: How do you feel about restaurants support of our local industry?
DN: I think their feelings are similar to mine: conflicted. It’s hard to run a wine program solely on Ontario wines, mostly due to price and subsequent quality. However, things are changing. I love to see places like General Assembly Pizza & City Betty pouring Tawse wines on tap or brew pubs like Bar Hop pouring Southbrook Biodynamic Bubbly.
GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Canada (BC, Ontario et al.) also. How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because of it being local, and not because of its quality?
DN: Quality should always be the goal. We have to set a precedence and encourage wineries to continue to produce high quality wines or we will never compete on the international stage.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
DN: Unfortunately, my wine experience consisted of drinking shitty wine at house parties.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
DN: There were definitely no angels singing. It was stolen from my parents cellar in high school and tasted like rotten cranberry juice.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
DN: I think this is really up to the parents. It’s such an important part of my life, so if my kids are curious, I’ll teach them as much as they want to know and let them have sips here and there.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to being a Sommelier yourself?
DN: I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up! I had no idea that I would end up with a career in wine or become a Sommelier. But, I loved learning about it, so I kept studying. Eventually, I saw it as a good transition out of restaurants so that I could work better hours and have a family one day.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious arseholes, and after seeing that film Somm a few years back I still worry about the emergence of a new Wine Bro culture… also, I recently picked up on a LOT of that from the mixology crowd, full-on Jordan Peterson fans and all that stuff. I’d love to hear your thoughts?
DN: Yikes. I’ve seen the Bro culture in wine and it’s a peculiar world indeed… bragging about and showing off unicorn wines, using them as status symbols to make up for their own insecurities. What I love about the wine industry right now, is that we don’t have the time or patience for this machismo behaviour. There is a whole new generation of wine-loving millennials who want wine to be fun and pretence-free. That’s the side I want to be on.
GFR: Speaking of which, we are having some really important conversations right now about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, and what can be done to eradicate it from the hospitality culture. As a woman in the industry I’d be interested to hear your take on the topic, and perhaps what you witnessed during your time in the restaurant world… big question I know, but I feel it’s a topic that deserves discussion.
DN: It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and asking other women about. I’m careful to work in environments where I feel respected as a female, which was not often easy to find. I’ve heard some terrible stories since starting 86 Common Collective—often from the female chefs I’ve interviewed.
It can only be eradicated if we keep talking about it. I think we’ve come a long way, but women have to keep sharing their stories. And, restaurant owners and leaders in our community have to continue to set examples by having zero tolerance for any kind of sexual harassment or misconduct.
GFR: Does your job allow you to travel much? Where have you been lately?
DN: Lately we’ve had a lot of our producers in town so I haven’t been travelling as much as I’d like to. However, I did have the opportunity to go to Portugal in the summer and visit the Dao and Duoro Valley.
Mark encourages us to find new wineries and bring new ideas to the team all the time. We have a lot of freedom in that way.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine? And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
DN: Honestly, I believe in the saying “you have to have a large fortune to make a small fortune in wine.” So, unless I come across a very large fortune, I don’t think I’ll ever make my own wine. However, I would love to collaborate and work with local wineries on small projects here in Ontario.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
DN: Bottles. I’m an INFP (if you’re into the whole 16 personality type thing) which means I’m a bit of an idealist and avoid conflict. I’d rather people self-manage and have me mediate if necessary (hopefully over a glass of wine).
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
DN: I’ve had a whole host of role models over the years and could riddle off the list (mostly women) whom I look up to – but, in general, I think young sommeliers should look for people who are generous with their time and excited to share what they know. I think we all get imposture syndrome sometimes, like we’re some kind of fraud and someone is going to call us out if we don’t remember the soil type in the Côte de Beaune, so we don’t teach or mentor as much as we ought to (or maybe that’s just me).
GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers? Apart from the obvious “Nicholas Pearce” answer…
DN: Haha. Nicholas Pearce is a wonderful role model. I also think Le Sommelier, Groupe Soleil, Brix & Mortar, and 30/50 are great. I respect the agents who treat everyone as colleagues instead of competitors. We should all be in this together!
GFR: Do you have nightmares about working with wines? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar… and the clock is ticking away… I have them all the time, and I haven’t been in the role for almost nine years!!!
DN: Classic! I haven’t had one of these dreams in a long time but I do sometimes have nightmares that Mark is disappointed in my performance.. Haha.
GFR: Wine folks famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Oh, wait a minute… you are more of a 9 – 5er now, aren’t you? What are the hours of someone in your role?
DN: Yes – I’m one of them now. I’m a creature of habit so even though I don’t necessarily have to be at the “office,” I’ll often head there in the morning to work on our website, reply to emails or send follow-ups. In the afternoon, I might have a tasting and then I’m usually done around 4. I’m used to having 3 jobs so it’s been a huge adjustment having weekends off (but, I love it).
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?
DN: Wherever my friends are. I love to visit the people I sell wine to and hit up old haunts where I feel at home (Archive, Union etc). I’m on Dundas West a lot – Sapori is a hidden gem with an incredible wine list, it’s a great place to start or end the night. I love skipping across the street before or after to go to Uncle Mikeys for some Korean pancakes. When I’m in the East end (yes, I’m an east ender), I love Wynona, Ascari and having late night cocktails at The Comrade, Poor Romeo or Pinkertons.
GFR: Do you cook yourself?
What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
DN: I’m a terrible cook but currently seeking lessons in exchange for wine. I do know a ridiculous amount about cheese, so my friends usually enlist me to bring the cheese course.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
DN: Every time feels like a disaster, but it’s hard not to feel that way when you’re surrounded by so many talented chefs.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto? Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
DN: A lot of my best friends work as Somms! I think there’s a great community here where every tasting feels like a reunion. It’s always great to share good wine with people who will enjoy it.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine and cocktail city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
DN: I think we’re starting to come into our own. Only a few years ago, I feel like Archive and Midfield were the only serious wine bars in the city. Now we have Paris, Paris; Wynona, Sapori, Grey Gardens—all of which I visit quite regularly. For cocktails: I’ve really been loving the new Founder bar on Dundas W. Brad Gubbins and Christopher McCrabb have some serious bartending chops. Chris has developed some of the best cocktail programs in Toronto and makes a mean Jungle Bird.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
DN: Leading adventure camps in BC – hiking, kayaking, camping, yoga, cycling, etc.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants? And who does it well?
DN: I think it’s often overlooked but contributes massively to the entire vibe and atmosphere of the room. I respect places like Montgomery’s where the owners painstakingly choose every track and switch the playlist every month, adding and deleting and constantly curating so everything blends seamlessly into the background. When I worked there, guests constantly asked about the playlist and had me write down songs. I also love Model Milk in Calgary where they play records all night, although this requires a lot of energy from the managers on duty.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
DN: I think I’ve watched Chocolat a dozen times. Who can resist Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, and chocolate? I have this dream of opening a cheese shop one day because there’s something magical in providing pleasure through food and there’s no food in my mind my pleasurable than cheese.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
DN: Lots – they love it! What’s not to like about someone who always brings a goodie bag of wine?!
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
DN: I love a good parlour trick. And despite being somewhat arbitrary in the real world, it has really helped with how I taste and allows me to be unbiased in my evaluations.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
DN: Interesting. I’ve never tested the theory, but maybe it was a fruit day? hah.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
DN: Adelaide Hills – I love what’s happening there right now, they’re at the forefront of the Australian wine revolution.
And, it’s home to some of my favourite producers: Ochota Barrels, BK Wines, Jauma, Brash Higgins
GFR: In your mind, as an (ex?) Sommelier and (current) importer, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
DN: Well, I’m not the only one drinking the “natural kool aid”, that’s for sure. I also get a lot of inquires about pet-nats and skin-contact wine too.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? I why do you feel that is?
DN: Super extracted and manipulated fruit bombs.
I think we’re beginning to appreciate more nuanced flavours and lower alcohol wines that are better suited to what we’re eating.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
DN: Cru Beaujolais (Le Grappin Côte de Brouilly would be nice) with one of my favourite recipes from Nigel Slater’s book “Tender Vol. 1,” Parsnip Gratin (pretty much like scalloped potatoes but with thin slices of parsnips + lots of butter and gruyere).
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with… ha… I have an idea… we’ll do this backwards this time around… with certain wines from your terrific portfolio.
What would you suggest to pair with them food-wise… and why?
Château Léoube rosé?
DN: Steamed Manilla clams in white wine (or with a splash of the Léoube) with a little saffron and garlic.
Southbrook Orange wine?
DN: I’m actually pairing this wine with a dish from Mira Mira Restaurant at Gold Metal Plates this year. Amira Becarevic, the Chef/Owner, makes this amazing BBQ Vegan Okra dish with cauliflower gratin, shishito peppers, coleslaw and sunflower crema. This dish has nutritional yeast to give it some vegan cheesiness which works so well with the yeasty, funky notes in this wine.
Clemens Busch Fahrlay-Terrassen Riesling GG?
DN: This plot of land is traditionally affected by noble rot, but in 2011 (our current vintage) there were enough clean grapes to produce a wine which fermented dry. It has this salty, elegant minerality with incredible aromatics – I’d love it with a really good scallop ceviche tossed with ginger, cilantro and some red chili.
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
DN: I love a good craft beer or cider but will only usually have one.
I’m more of a cocktail drinker (aperol spritz or dark & stormys at the moment). Or, love sipping on a good vermouth.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Wine Agent?
DN: Letting people down. We work with a lot of small wineries, so we can sell out of inventory quite quickly.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
DN: Whatever is in my purse, which is usually a two-step rabbit.
GFR: Due to us being around alcohol, many people in our industry often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze, or they develop issues. What is your limit and how do you keep yourself in check?
DN: The most dreaded question at the doctor’s office..”how much alcohol do you consume per week?”
I can usually have 1.5 bottles over the course of a couple hours before things start going downhill. However, I do a fairly good job at keeping myself in check and don’t often drink during the week. Alcohol can have some really negative effects on me – I suffer terrible hangovers and depression after a long night.
Sometimes that extra bottle of wine, which always seems like a good idea at the time, is not worth the pain it brings me the next day.
GFR: There’s a lot of open discourse right now around the topic of both drug and alcohol abuse within the restaurant world. Would you care to share a few of your thoughts about that side of the business? To be quite frank with you, the thing I miss the LEAST about working in that environment is the late nights of drinking and recreational pharmaceuticals. I don’t think my body could take it any longer anyway!
DN: I think if you stay in this industry long enough, there’s no avoiding the darker sides of those late nights and high-stress environments.
It’s not unusual to go out for a post-work drink..the problem with the restaurant industry is that when you want to go out, it’s usually after midnight. After-hour bars become common and the drugs with it. It’s hard to say no when your work family says, “just come out for one drink,” which enviably becomes more.
Anyone prone to alcohol or drug abuse should be very careful about what environments they choose to put themselves in and where they work. Restaurants can be toxic and those late nights really took a toll on me in my twenties.
GFR: Speaking of which, have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time? I think it happened to me back in Scotland once… hazy memories…
DN: If anyone cuts me off, it’s usually me… classic Houdini style.
GFR: Speaking of which, do you have a good hangover cure? None of the cures given to me by previous interviewees have really done the job for me…
DN: Sex? Haha. And, more sleep.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
DN: Maybe 24-36 depending on how many meetings I have.
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
DN: Both – I should really spit more but I believe it’s a testament to how good our wines are.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
DN: For the past couple weeks, Ostertag Sylvaner. Sometimes I have cheese for dinner (I’m the worst) and this is the perfect pairing.
GFR: Funny, I don’t think that cheese for dinner is a bad thing at all!
Most remembered glass of wine ever?
DN: Ohhh, so many!! But, most recently, I’d say this wine from Quinta do Romeu I had in the Douro.. my good friend and I had just finished this incredible meal in Jerusalém do Romeu with the owner of the estate in his family restaurant. Other than the restaurant staff (one cook and one server), we were literally the only 3 people for miles, so we snuck our last glass of red wine from the restaurant to the car and drove up a manmade road to this pond where the Virgin Mary peered down on us. We left the keys in the ignition, blasted music and danced under a million stars with these glasses of wine. This was as close to a religious experience as it gets for me.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Danielle… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
DN: I wish I could say something exciting like Scheurebe but I think I might be closer to Chardonnay – a grape that’s malleable. You can take me anywhere and I’ll adapt. And, perhaps there’s people that don’t take to me at first sip, but I like to think I have complexities that eventually win people over. The people who understand me and take the time to get to know me are usually lifelong friends.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Danielle.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution.
Peter Boyd has been a part of Toronto’s wine scene for over two decades. He has taught the Diploma level for the International Sommeliers Guild, and has been the sommelier at Scaramouche Restaurant since 1993. He also writes about wine, food and pop culture and raises show molerats for fun and profit. He’s also one of the most solid guys in the business.Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit and is slowly taking over this city. He just celebrated his 67th birthday!
A well-known and much respected figure on the Toronto food and wine scene for almost twenty years, Potvin has worked in many of the city’s very best establishments including Biffs, Canoe, and Eau. In 2004 Potvin opened his incarnation of the Niagara Street Café, a restaurant that has gone from strength to strength year after year, with universal critical acclaim. Anton spends much of his time traveling and tasting wine and has been ranked highly in consecutive years of the International Wine Challenge. Anton is now GM at DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu.